Arctic Survey to Help Set Charting Priorities

Fairweather to Take Depth Measurements Along Busy Maritime Corridor

July 30, 2012
  • NOAA Ship Fairweather's recon mission around Alaska

    Fairweather will take sample depth measurements along the trackline corridor (pictured in green), to validate earlier data collected by non-NOAA ships. The new measurements will guide charting decisions: what earlier data can be used to update charts, and where does NOAA have to conduct new hydrographic surveys?

  • NOAA Ship Fairweather with background of Alaskan mountains

    The NOAA Ship Fairweather is named after Mt. Fairweather, located in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve along the US-Canada border. Mt. Fairweather was named by Captain Cook in 1778, presumably because of the good weather encountered at the time of his visit.

  • Officers stand on the deck of the USS Monitor in this image captured on July 9, 1862, by Union photographer, James F. Gibson.

    NOAA's predecessor agency, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, was very active in Alaska in the 1890s, with hydrographic and topographic field parties collecting measurements to create land maps and nautical charts. They also used information from British and Russian sources. This 1898 General Chart of Alaska (partial image) was compiled from United States and Russian Authorities.

While it may be hard to fathom, modern fuel tankers that transport millions of gallons of oil across the Arctic are sometimes forced to rely on ocean depth measurements reported by the explorer and mapmaker Captain James Cook back in 1778!

According to NOAA Corps Commander James Crocker, commanding officer of the NOAA Ship Fairweather, “Much of Alaska’s coastal area has never had full-bottom bathymetric surveys to measure water depths.” Fortunately, the Fairweather will leave its home port of Ketchikan, Alaska, this week on a 30-day reconnaissance mission that will help NOAA prioritize its efforts to update navigational charts in the Arctic.

Crocker, who is also the chief scientist of this preliminary survey, explains that the Fairweather is setting out to check sparse soundings (a nautical term for depth measurements) along a busy maritime transit corridor from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to the Canadian border. Commercial shippers, tankers, passenger vessels, and fishing fleets employ navigational charts produced by NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey to navigate the 1,500-nautical-mile route. Many of the charts, however, depict sporadic depth readings reported by private vessels in decades and, indeed, centuries past. Those vessels lacked precise positioning equipment and experts who knew how to take accurate measurements.

Plans, Priorities, and a Scientific Process

In June 2011, NOAA issued its Arctic Nautical Charting Plan, which outlines the agency’s efforts to update hydrographic data for the fairways, approaches, and ports along the Alaskan coast. With nearly 2,220 miles of low tidal shoreline in Alaska, the sheer size of the task demands a rigorous scientific process.

The Fairweather’s August voyage will help NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey set priorities for future full-coverage surveys. Tomorrow’s mariners, using modern charts created from precise data made possible with new technologies, will always celebrate Captain Cook for his daring explorations. But they’ll rely on NOAA’s new start in surveying and charts for their safety.


The NOAA Ship Fairweather is part of the fleet of ships and aircraft operated, managed, and maintained by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes both civilians and the commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.